- - Monday, September 3, 2018


By Brian D. Taylor

Oxford University Press, $99 (hardcover), $27.95 (paper), 264 pages

If books were sold by the pound, Brian Taylor’s slender, concise volume on Russia under Vladimir Putin would be overpriced. With only 209 pages of actual text, it is a fraction of the length of many windier, weightier academic books that say more while telling us less.

But “The Code of Putin” packs more punch to the pound. It might just as easily have been titled “Decoding Putin” for what Mr. Taylor attempts is to explain the forces that have shaped and driven Vladimir Putin by linking them to the forces that have shaped and driven Russia. The latter forces were around long before Mr. Putin came along and will be with us long after he is gone, but in many ways he is their political embodiment in the here and now.

The result is what the author, professor and chair of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs calls “Putinism.” President Putin, he explains, “deserves his own ‘ism’ because there is a coherent set of political practices and especially an operating ‘code’ that has remained fairly consistent over time. Thus, Putinism is more like ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Reaganism’ than like ‘Marxism’ — it is not a fully developed, all-encompassing ideology, but a system of rule and a guiding mentality, a personality and a historical moment.”

True as far as it goes, but it is important to remember where and how these three “isms” developed. Both Thatcherism and Reaganism were born in solidly democratic societies with centuries of constitutional government behind them. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Ronald Reagan was, like Mr. Putin, a former secret police officer for the excellent reason that their countries have never had secret police. Unfortunately, Putinism springs from less healthy soil.

Thatcher and Reagan talked about restoring and building on traditional Western values with a strong emphasis on free enterprise and the rights of the individual. As a proud Russian nationalist, Mr. Putin also wants to restore and rebuild. But he is trying to do so from a very different set of traditional values and historical context.

He is also dealing with a passive, until recently heavily repressed population stuck in a backward economy run by an uneasy triad of aging ex-apparatchiks like Mr. Putin himself, a new and often corrupt cadre of plutocrats (crony capitalists whose fortunes are dependent on getting along and going along with an increasingly authoritarian, “Putinized” central bureaucracy), and a rising generation of honest, able technocrats with limited power and impact.

In the best of times and places, this would not make for a particularly winning combination, and Mr. Putin’s Russia is not by any stretch of the imagination in the best of either. Sad to say, Russia under Mr. Putin is most reminiscent of Mexico under the long rule of Porfirio Diaz, who served as president — or pulled the strings from behind the scenes — from 1876 to 1911.

Diaz, a self-taught soldier who served heroically against his country’s French invaders and Maximilian, the puppet emperor they installed, was, like Mr. Putin, a sincere nationalist who believed that only a strong hand could rescue his country from chaos, poverty and humiliation (“Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States,” was how he summed it up).

Diaz did stamp out anarchy and preside over considerable technological progress by relying on the so-called “scientificos,” educated, apolitical technocrats. Like Mr. Putin, he was periodically re-elected in tightly managed and most certainly stacked elections. But the poor, illiterate masses remained mired in poverty.

Finally, in his 80s, Diaz was driven from power at the opening of the Mexican Revolution, which lasted for generations, cost millions of lives, and has left Mexico a fragile, impoverished democratic work-in-progress up to this day.

In many ways, and despite a higher level of development than Mexico, today’s Russia is a similarly unfinished state. Meanwhile, the Putin dream of restored Russian superpower status fades by the minute, probably irreversibly.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Brian Taylor writes, “is punching above its weight The United States represents one-third of all world military expenditures, spending almost three times as much as China and nearly nine times as much as Russia. If we look at the world economy Russia doesn’t even crack the top ten, with an economy fourteen times smaller than the U.S. one, and almost nine times smaller than China.”

None of which is likely to improve Vladimir Putin’s mood or restrain his desire to throw his global weight around while he can. But it augers ill for the long-term future of Putinism.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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